Injured Back and Injured Mindset

After about 9 months, I started to get a tingling sensation in my foot. As lots of rowers will know, this is a sign of Sciatica, where one (or more) of your discs in your back starts to swell due to excessive loading – pressing on your nerves giving a tingling or painful sensation somewhere in your legs. My coach at the time was unsure how to handle it and so we continued training and racing for the next few months hoping it would subside. After another few months or my back getting worse, and a few physio appointments, I was told to stop rowing and fix my back. 

I was grateful to have been accepted onto the Scottish Institute of Sport after showing good potential in my brief stint in the sport. Through stopping rowing, work in the gym and weekly physio appointments, we started to try and fix my back. Despite not rowing, my back continued to deteriorate, and it was getting to the point where walking for 5 minutes would trigger pain and discomfort in my back and or legs. Those who have suffered an injury will know how demoralising it can be and how hopeless it can leave you feeling. Months started to pass and there were few positives I could take away from it. 

I read an article by Alex Gregory and his path to being one of the best rowers in the country. He talked about how he targeted his weakness, strength. After being selected as a spare for Beijing he decided to spend 3 months with no rowing, solely focussing on getting stronger. It worked and he quickly rose to the top of the sport. Inspired by this, I decided to apply the same concept with my back. I was no longer a rower, but a back fixer. I logged everything I did in my day and counted how many times a day I felt pain or tingling. Through this I was able to correlate activities and exercises that were causing my pain. I intensified my stretching, literally to the point where if I wasn’t moving, I was stretching. I stretched while sitting in lectures, watching TV, or making porridge. 

After about 18 months of rehab I was able to go rowing again. My return was gradual, and something that helped me recover from my back was hindering me in training. Any time when I was recovering, if I felt pain or discomfort, I would stop what I was doing. When you become hyper aware of anything it can be very difficult to distinguish what is real and what is not. For example, think about what you are feeling in your left pinky. If you spend your day like this, it is easy to misinterpret any sensation that you are getting. So, any time I had the slightest hint of tightness, tingling, stiffness etc in my back or leg I would stop rowing. It was at this point I started to justify not rowing by anything I was feeling (or not) in my back, laziness and complacency set in. I was able to come back and do a percentage of a programme and get back racing. Not surprisingly, I was miles off where I was before I had gotten injured. Spending 18 months away from competition, I gradually cemented in the idea that as I showed good potential after about a year in a sport, my dreams of making the olympics would be easily achieved if I could just do a couple more years. Obviously, this was the wrong mindset. For about 2 years I continued half-heartedly training like this, justifying not completing sessions due to my injury when deep down it was a lack of commitment. I was dropped by my coach at the time and the Scottish Insitute of Sport, and rightly so. 

Through a friend, I was introduced to Richard “Ricky” Walsh, a well known figure on the Clyde who had coached people to GB vests and another to an Olympic Silver Medal. His reputation preceded him, a hard man with a hard training programme. At this point, I was aware of my lack of commitment and softness that had developed over the last couple years and thought that if he would give me a chance it could be exactly what I needed. I had just graduated University and thought I would give my goals one last proper go, with the support of my Dad and moral support and understanding of my girlfriend, I trained full time from home. After my first session, I could confirm that he was in fact hard and his programme was hard. A couple weeks into the programme, despite improving from my prior complacency to training, I was still missing the odd sessions. Ricky quickly pulled me aside and said “You won’t achieve what you want to achieve if you continue like this, the programme I’ve set is designed for your goals, so if you’re not doing the programme, then you won’t achieve the goals, so we need to change your goals”. Having it simply set out for me like this, made it clear that responsibility was completely my own. Something Ricky always says, and something that stuck with me is, ask yourself what you want to achieve, figure out what you have to do to achieve it, if you don’t want to do what it takes to achieve it, then you don’t want it. My mindset completely changed and through being coached by Ricky and holding myself accountable I was able to reach the level I had been at before and surpass it.

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